On a frozen day in February walking high on the Sussex Downs at Firle Beacon, I turn northwards. In front of me is a stark, bold shape several miles away. A pair of white fields. The chalk bright, the fields folded outwards with a central dark ridge. A sculptural form. An ‘open book’. Illuminated by sun in the sharp air, it became a crisp pair of pages with a vertical spine.
I need to get closer.
I realise that the fields must be very close to my home-ground. The height of the Beacon giving me a new view of their form.
I walk daily. Part of a ritual of clearing my mind before entering my studio.
I carve limestone but have grown up walking over fields of flint and chalk.
I walk with my two whippets as companions. I find both words and images come to mind in this space. The clear rhythm of walking, breathing and looking removing anxiety and bringing clarity.
The ‘Book-Field’ and its changing pages teach me a still more intent attendance to place.
As I walked it in early February, the field was a donkey-grey tilth interspersed with large flints and furrows following the curving uplift of the field. Wing-like. The drills describing sketched lines or a crosshatched page. The low light raking its top surface, leaving the deeper cuts in shadow.
This land has been my own ground and I have never left it. For twenty-five years this large island has been my bedrock. I walk it and I carve it, with my feet and by hand.
Early grief has limited my travels. Although I often refer to myself as ‘three-mile radius girl’, this is not something that brings me limitation. Instead it has always had me pay full attention to the specifics of the place where I dwell.
I celebrate the tiny changes I notice, in my work and in the rituals by which I live my life. By the end of February each day reveals new colour and the early growth of plants in the meadow at the base of the book-field.
And its pages begin to turn.
By late February, the blank pages are ploughed with a dark line left rhythmically at each tractor width. An underlining. Awaiting seed. Asking for word.
On the field are large split pieces of flint. Chalky grey crusts often revealing sky blue or storm grey cores. As much sky as ground. Held in the hand, they become tiny monuments to the wider landscape. They mirror the sky and ground they fall between.
These field lines are tattooed in my mind as I return to carve in the studio.
I walk the field’s spine every day and meet head on the drizzle and dreich. High wind, far more welcome in the open than listening to its heavy presence around the house’s edge and glimpsing rain through windows. I walk through the grief I sometimes feel. Grief is acutely sensed, and we feel it alone. Often unaltered by discussion or time. But when I walk there is the quiet company of birds.
Good days are a three buzzard day, or a charm of twelve goldfinch, or a tilting, wing-waltzing flock of gulls. I am mostly attended by larks. A bird in decline, but not here it seems. Rising from the gratten and dropping into grass.
March comes and so the gold-lichen on the hawthorns and the oak moss become luminous. Rain-washed soil and flints from the chalk path down the field’s spine are stranded as marginalia. Broken, scattered clods of soil are grammar. Above the notational sound of lark song there is little noise from the road: we are now in isolation. A sense of muted sadness and fear felt heavily in heart and somehow transmitted to pace. A darkening of the light in the fields. The birds somehow louder – or are we stilled and less vocal? On the ground I find a flint, rather bovine in nature, that becomes a touchstone for my journey. I tap it each time I pass and await its presence.
Early April and the field has become so well-walked that – as in meditation, I find my mind has emptied itself to anything but the act of walking. Larks rise and fall, drop to earth.
I find a feather on the path today: 16th April 2020.
It is broken and torn. A thing more of ground than air now. None the less, it is a buzzard’s flight feather, and held in the hand it weighs more than expected.
A gift to be offered to Birds of Firle and one which I have echoed in the chalk which was found beside it. A carved memorial to the buzzard-bright days that will be returned to us.
Artefact: A Footnote on Little Toller’s The Clearing by Jo Sweeting
“A single shoe pulled from the darkness of a drawer where it has spent many years. In my hand it is no longer than my index finger and only twice as wide. It is bird-like in weight but has an undertow of force for me…”
Three Views of a Chalkstone on Little Toller’s The Clearing by Tanya Shadrick, Jo Sweeting and Louisa Thomsen Brits.
“This found erratic boulder on a high point of the Sussex Downs becomes a touchstone for we three women. Chance and skill and intent triangulate to form art. We will make something of this, we decide. Choose words for place from the Sussex dialect and return here to carve them.”
JO SWEETING is a sculptor and lettercarver, whose work is informed by the concept of ‘shul’, a marking which remains after the thing that has made it has passed. She works chiefly in British Limestone. She designed the frontispiece for Hetty Saunders’ biography of J. A. Baker, My House of Sky, published by Little Toller in 2017. Jo is at present carving a large erratic boulder called Foundle (see project’s Instagram here). She is also working towards a large project in Devon in collaboration with Common Ground and the National Trust, supported by Robert Macfarlane, Chalk Cliff Trust and The Burton Art Gallery, beginning in late March 2021 . This project will work on an even larger boulder, taking on themes of language, time and place. Find out more about Jo’s work on Instagram.